After ending last season on a roll, head coach Nick Jasmer was looking for the Menahga baseball team to build on that momentum to begin this season.
The COVID-19 pandemic stalled that momentum.
Menahga made a late-season run to advance to the Section 5A championship game. After opening the season with a 0-11-1 record, the Braves snapped a 33-game winless streak and a 26-game losing streak in Park Region Conference games by ending the regular season with a 3-1 record. Despite being the No. 6 seed in the West for the section playoffs, the Braves went 5-2 in the postseason, falling one win short of advancing to the state Class A tournament with a 2-1 loss to Sebeka in the title game. Menahga opened the playoffs by defeating No. 3 Walker-Hackensack-Akeley 3-1 and followed an 11-1 loss to No. 2 Nevis with wins over No. 5 Hill City/Northland 5-0, Nevis 13-10, Braham (the No. 2 seed in the East) 11-1 and Hinckley-Finlayson (the No. 1 seed in the East) 16-0.
“We had a great turnout and the guys were ready to get started. All we had was the arm-conditioning week and then boom, everything hit and was canceled,” said Jasmer. “I believe this year was going to be the year where a lot of guys were going to stand out and really help to keep us moving in the direction where we ended last season on a high positive note.”
With only two senior starters graduating, Jasmer was counting on the Braves to improve on their record this spring.
Menahga had two key spots to fill with the graduation of Lars Keranen and Thomas Litzau. Keranen earned all-conference honors after batting .333 with 22 runs scored and 12 RBI in 23 games and going 6-2 with a 2.92 ERA in 50.3 innings and nine pitching appearances. Litzau was an all-conference honorable mention player who batted .344 with 17 RBI and 14 runs scored in 23 games while going 3-1 with a 1.38 ERA in 20.3 innings and seven outings on the mound.
Expected to return from last year’s team that posted an 8-14-1 overall record were seniors Corey Haataja (pitcher, infield) and Patrick Simmons (first base); juniors Charlie Hodge (pitcher, catcher, infield, outfield), Sam Jackola (infield, outfield), Jack Pietila (pitcher, infield) and Eddie Salmen (pitcher, infield); and sophomores Ivan Anderson (catcher, pitcher, infield, outfield), Nolan Haataja (pitcher, infield), Ethan Hendrickson (outfield), Aaron Pietila (infield, outfield) and Henry Salmen (pitcher, infield).
That group helped the Braves bat .256 as a team and post a 3.59 team ERA. Menahga averaged 5.3 runs a game while allowing 5.5 runs a game. The Braves posted a 2-11-1 record in conference play.
Corey Haataja led the Braves in batting last season with a .357 average (20 for 56) with 14 RBI and 13 runs scored in 21 games. Anderson hit .314 (22 for 70) with 14 runs and 14 RBI in 22 games. Nolan Haataja batted .296 (16 for 54) with nine runs and nine RBI in 20 games. Eddie Salmen batted .222 (16 for 72) with eight runs and five RBI in 23 games. Jack Pietila hit .197 (12 for 61) with 14 runs and four RBI in 23 games. Hodge played in 16 games and batted .182 (6 for 33) with seven runs and seven RBI. Hendrickson hit .156 (5 for 32) with six runs and three RBI in 12 games. Henry Salmen batted .150 (6 for 40) with four runs and two RBI in 17 games. Also seeing varsity time were Simmons (nine games), Aaron Pietila (eight games) and Jackola (three games).
Looking to take over the pitching duties were Corey Haataja (0-3 record and a 7.38 ERA in 12.3 innings and seven appearances), Anderson (0-3 record and 4.35 ERA in 19.3 innings and six outings), Nolan Haataja (0-2 record and 3.19 ERA in 15.3 innings and seven appearances) and Eddie Salmen (0-3 record and 3.12 ERA in 24.2 innings in nine outings). Hodge and Jack Pietila also saw some time on the mound last season.
“The expectations were high. I usually set them high, but for sure with the way we ended last year and knowing the players that I had returning, I believe people expected us to be pretty good this year. I did as well,” said Jasmer. “I believe the conference and section were still going to be tough. We play in an area with a lot of good coaches and ball players. We still would have needed to play close to picture perfect baseball to come out and win games.”
Losing the season cost the Braves a chance to continue to build on their hot finish to last season. However, Jasmer is counting on his team to pick up that momentum next spring.
“We lose a great group of seniors that didn’t get to step out on the field for their final season and to be able to keep going and finish what we started at the end of last season. I have a very talented and dedicated group of young varsity ball players that miss out on a season of gaining more experience at the varsity level. We have a lot of good younger athletes coming up through our system that were hoping to have a great junior high or junior varsity season,” said Jasmer. “I expect us to bounce back from this time and continue on with the expectations that we had this season. We graduate some really great seniors, but we have a good crew of ball players behind them who are going to be itching more than ever to get back out on that ball field next spring.”